Cups and Balls
One of the oldest tricks in magic is the cups and balls routine, it goes back about two thousand years. It’s a trick of pure skill, dexterity and misdirection. It has no trick props, technological trickery or flash paper - it’s pure practiced craft. That’s why when kids set out to learn the trick as new magicians, they’re often disappointed at the lack of assistance from the props. They frequently give up learning it - this is no fun, It requires practice and hard work!
I often think of that reaction when I give tours or descriptions of organ shops to woodworkers. They often can’t disguise their disappointment that it looks much like any other woodshop. We make our stuff with the same sorts of tools they’re used to - there’s no miracle Organ Machine, it’s pure practiced craft.
It’s tempting to think their disappointment is born of the discovery that there’s no miracle in the process of organ building, and they themselves could do it with straightforward tools, but I think it’s actually the opposite; they’re disappointed when they realize no amount of tool-buying would allow them to do the same work. They would have to practice the hard stuff and acquire skill over a period of hard work for which there is no substitute. Like the child learning sleight of hand - there is no help from the props. No Miracle.
I was thinking about this as it relates to the way many organ builders portray themselves, their process, and the work they do with an eye towards accentuating the mysterious aspects of it. I suspect the vagueness, secrecy, and behind-the-veil closed nature of many organ shops is borne of the private anxiety that if people understood that there is no miracle, they would cease to be impressed. If people understood that this is a complex but ultimately logical and straightforward craft that requires primarily dedication, discipline and close attention that something of our mystique would be lost.
This is not necessarily so. Some years ago, to the horror of many, Penn & Teller started performing a new version of the cups and balls, which gives the ‘trick’ away, and puts the craft and skill required to master it at the center of the performance :
So you tell me : When the ‘trick’ was revealed to be straight up sleight of hand, did it become less impressive, or more so? Before the clear cups come out, you’re left the option of thinking the table, cups, or balls are doing the work. With the clear cups, it’s clear that it’s a craft of skill and close attention and many years of practice.
The miracle of our craft is that there is no miracle. So while some give in to the temptation to draw the curtain around their workshop for fear of giving the trick away, I’m going to use my inaugural blog post here to suggest doing the opposite.
I’m committed to doing the Cups and Balls with clear plastic cups. We are neither magical, nor infallible, we are simply skilled and committed. Ed and I have both been involved in this craft since childhood, we have never seen a machine or learned a secret which turns organ building into anything but the domain of people who work obsessively hard, and sweat the details, and pay very close attention.
The ‘Trick’ is that doing it the hard way is the only way to do it well.